When Broadway star Shuler Hensley was in high school at the Westminster Schools, he vividly remembers evenings going to football practice and then high-tailing it to be able to make theater practice as well. That was almost unheard of back then — someone placing a musical on the same level as football — but these days musical theater is big business. The Georgia High School Musical Theater Awards — being held Thursday night at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and televised on WSB-TV at a later date — are an indication of that.
Celebrating the best high school musical theater productions around the state, the awards — also referred to as the Shuler Hensley Awards — began in 2009 with just over a dozen schools from public and private metro-Atlanta schools. When the awards were opened up in 2012 to incorporate all Georgia high schools, the number of participants skyrocketed. This year boasts an all-time high number of schools participating — 59 — and the nominees for Best Musical — Calhoun High School’s Sweeney Todd; Milton High School’s Legally Blonde; South Forsyth High School’s Shrek the Musical; Tri-Cities High School’s Dreamgirls; Wesleyan School’s Into the Woods; and West Forsyth High School’s A Tale of Two Cities, the Musical — are spread out statewide.
More than 90 performers compose the Shuler Student Ensemble, which kicks off and closes the event. High schools are allowed to submit two students to participate, providing those students are not nominated as lead actor and actress that season. (Lead actor and actresses nominees are featured separately in a musical medley of their performances.) New this season is the Showstopper Award, which allows one more school who did not receive a nomination for Overall Performance to participate in the evening.
Hensley, of course, has gone on to tremendous fame, winning a Tony Award for his role in 2002’s Broadway revival of Oklahoma! and becoming a stage fixture. He returned home a few seasons ago to star in the world premiere musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County at the Alliance Theatre and continues working steadily in New York. No matter what he has going on the rest of the year, however, the performer always makes time to come home for this.
For the second consecutive year, Meg Gillentine is choreographing this year’s event. Gillentine is a Cobb County native who moved away after attending Pebblebrook High School. While enrolled at New York University, she landed a Broadway gig in Cats her sophomore year. “I did school during the day and a show at night until I graduated,” she says. Once her education was over she went on tour with Fosse and then returned to New York for more shows, as well as some film and TV. She moved to Roswell with her family a few years ago, but continues to perform. Later this year she will be involved with the Alliance Theatre’s world premiere musical Bull Durham.
Working on the event is something she doesn’t take lightly. To her it’s about being able to work with talented kids and encourage them moving forward. “I love giving back to my community,” she says. “I love teaching — it completely feeds my soul — and I love being with these students who aspire to be on Broadway and have a career in the business. For the kids, it’s a huge honor. It builds confidence and character; they get to learn about work ethic.”
She’s choreographed since high school and loves that as much as acting, yet her numbers here are not an easy task. “This challenges me, with all the students onstage, making sure the music tells a story,” she says. “Preparing two numbers in two days — that is hard. But for me, I learn something every day I work with [the students] about myself and things I need to work on.”
Particularly impressive to her is the triple-threat aspect of today’s young performers (she laughs that she couldn’t hold her own against them now) and their passion. Over the weekend she was taken by a performer who didn’t seem to care he was in the back of the chorus. “I watched him the entire time,” she says. “He was living for it. Someone who has that much joy, you can see it.”
Her biggest advice to the kids is to be as talented as they can be. “Practice; never settle for what you are doing,” she says. “You can always be better. If I could go back I would have studied the things I was most uncomfortable in, so you can become a well-rounded performer. Be fearless; attack things when you are onstage.”
Although they have never worked together professionally until last year, Gillentine has known Hensley for a long time. He rented her apartment in Los Angeles during pilot season many years ago.
Hensley feels her participation is great for the students. “They feed on her enthusiasm,” he says. “She is perfect for this. I went in today not knowing much other than I was going to be singing a song in the opening number. It’s rare to find someone who can organize and be creative at the same time. She is able to talk to the kids.”
Regional theater has come a long way since Hensley was starting out. “Some of the theaters here are world-class,” he says. “I find that thrilling.”
Hensley’s not one to tell theater wannabes to move to New York automatically. “I’m of the school that real education in theater comes on the stage,” he says. “You can learn what you can learn in the classroom, but the act of being onstage and learning what happens [there], you can’t learn in the classroom. So I think if you are going to make a career out of theater, it’s not necessary to break your neck to get to New York. It is necessary to break your neck to get onstage and learn the craft.”